Memories of Michael Harrington

Harrington speaking at a DSOC event (Gretchen Donart)

We continue our recognition of Michael Harrington’s contributions with recollections from several of our comrades who worked with him.

By Jack Clark

A mistake I'm glad I made led directly to my getting to know Mike Harrington well.

In 1969, I joined the University of Massachusetts chapter of the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL), the youth group of the Socialist Party (SP) which Mike chaired. YPSL opposed the self-defeating antics of some elements of the student left. My mistake consisted in thinking that YPSL shared basic goals of the student left, such as ending the war in Vietnam. Soon enough I was caught up in a faction fight within YPSL and the SP over the war and a range of related issues. Mike was the leader of our faction, the Coalition Caucus in the SP. By late 1972 I had moved to New York City to become organizer for the Coalition Caucus. I threw myself into the Labor for McGovern campaign, organized other young socialists to join picket lines for UFW boycotts and organized to maximize our caucus’s strength at the Dec. 1972 SP convention.

The 1972 SP convention was a debacle. The majority voted down a motion to condemn Nixon's terror bombing of North Vietnam, which was happening as we met. Social Democrats USA became the new name of the organization. Mike conducted himself with dignity through several days of vicious attacks on not only his politics but on his character. Despite urgings from many followers, Mike refused to walk out. Months later he resigned, and nearly a year later we founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee as a new group, not a split from the old SP. That fresh start made all the difference.

Over a seven-year period I worked full time for the movement. In retrospect, I never worked harder, and I never learned so much. I saw Mike's great skill at bringing people together. In the midst of an escalating political discussion in our leadership committees, Mike would define an emerging consensus. We'd joke about his seeing harmony in conflict, but he was genuinely skilled in finding common ground.

Finding common ground in larger politics also animated Mike. He worked tirelessly to bring our little group into closer alignment with what he saw as a potential majority coalition in American politics. As the Congressional Black Caucus was forming its agenda, Mike was writing about full employment policy and cementing alliances with Gus Hawkins and John Conyers. Appealing to historic ties to the socialist tradition, Mike built links to the UAW, AFSCME and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. When Bill Winpisinger emerged as leader of the Machinists union and self-identified as a "seat-of-the-pants socialist," Mike Harrington and DSOC were the natural place to turn. Bill Lucy of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Joyce Miller of the Coalition of Labor Union Women identified with DSOC because of Mike.

Unlike our erstwhile comrades in SDUSA, Mike never dismissed change agents from outside the House of Labor. For a Debs Dinner honoring a major UAW leader, Gloria Steinem gave the keynote speech. Links between building trades workers and environmentalists were forged in local DSOC full employment coalitions. Organizing students to build a new generation for social change was always a priority; Mike spoke at all the youth conferences. Mike made time to attend meetings of the emerging Hispanic Commission within DSOC, and committed atheist that he was, he engaged respectfully with the Commission on Religion and Socialism.

If he lived to celebrate this birthday, Mike would have been 87. That's not exceptionally old for someone of his generation. As it is, we lost him at age 61. He left us his writing, some records of his powerful speeches and the legacy of an American socialism rooted in the struggles of our fellow citizens to improve their lives today and tomorrow. We mourn him still, and we live to build on his legacy.

Jack Clark served as national secretary of DSOC from 1973-79.  He has also been chair of the New York City local of DSOC and Boston local of DSA.

By Penny Schantz

I met Mike Harrington at Queens College in 1976. As a 17-year-old freshman, I had the chutzpah to ask the famous professor to let me take his graduate seminar “The Politics of the Labor Movement.” He let me in, I did well and Mike became my advocate. He helped me get into Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations program and his reference landed me a summer internship at UAW Local 259 led by DSOCer Sam Meyers. The intellectual foundation laid by Mike’s seminar and the practical experience of working with Sam ingrained in me a deep conviction: being a socialist makes me a better trade unionist.

I became active in DSOC’s Youth Section in its early years. Determined not to repeat mistakes he made in the 1960s, Mike was supportive of the Youth Section and prioritized speaking on campuses. He exhibited an almost saintly patience with hecklers from the sectarian left. As youth organizer, I was often on the road with Mike. Listening to his countless speeches taught me public speaking by osmosis. Mike’s flair for storytelling made a delightful treat for staffers, gathered in the office to hear the highlights of his recent travels.

For years afterwards, Mike met me at a Flushing diner when I visited NY. Sipping a vanilla milkshake in the later years of his illness, he continued to provide encouragement, nurturing and wise counsel. I wish he knew how much he later inspired my international work based in his beloved Paris.

Penny Schantz is the former AFL-CIO International Representative and DSA youth organizer.

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Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 82 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 47 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.


Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.


Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 19 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.